The Case For Trump
August 13, 2020
Donald Trump isn’t the better choice to secure America’s future. He is the only choice
By Dimitri K. Simes
Editor’s Note: Please see a counter perspective, courtesy of Dov Zakheim, a former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense during the George W. Bush Administration, as part of a two-part debate on the 2020 Election and Donald Trump. You can read the essay here.
PRESIDENT DONALD Trump, despite his numerous and well-documented faults, is by far a better choice than former vice-president Joe Biden in 2020. If the election were strictly a referendum on Trump, the answer might be quite different, and the Democrats would understandably want to portray the election as a referendum on a controversial and unpopular president. But as with most presidential elections, there are really only two candidates. The election is not only about what the incumbent president has done, but also about the actions of the opposition—in this case, the Democrats—to checkmate his efforts.
First, a word on Trump’s own record: he clearly has mishandled the greatest current challenge to the United States, namely, the coronavirus pandemic. His response to the crisis has been, at best, erratic, and, at worst, a mixture of self-delusion and a search for personal political benefit. Many thousands of people have died needlessly because the president was unwilling and unable to form an effective response to the pandemic—a challenge that required a disciplined and deliberate analysis, the right balance between medical and economic considerations, and skillful federal leadership in coordination with governors and mayors. As a result of the president’s fumbling, the economy is now in worse shape than it needed to be. In contrast, for most of his term, Trump provided quite sound economic leadership, and by most indicators, both Wall Street and Main Street were in good shape before the virus struck. It is clear, however, that a lack of adequate preparation to a fairly predictable pandemic, an absence of minimally adequate supplies, a failure to organize mass testing comparable to what was done in most of Europe, China, Korea, and even Russia, has made the pandemic more severe than in most other advanced nations. The president’s emphasis on reopening the economy no matter what has also now contributed to a new wave of the virus, which in turn triggers new closings of the economy, more unemployment, zig-zags in financial markets, and a general uncertainty.
Trump can also not escape personal responsibility for the recent wave of political protests, accompanied in far too many cases by outright violence against police, businesses, average citizens and even monuments—a central part of the American tradition whose violent destruction symbolizes the impotence of authorities in dealing with illegal actions by a relatively small but belligerent movement of radical militants. Trump’s insensitivity toward acts of police brutality—which garner most attention when directed against African-Americans but are experienced by citizens of all races—has heightened tensions following the dreadful death of George Floyd, a black man virtually strangulated by a white police officer. Trump’s response to the subsequent riots was a combination of bravado, empty threats, and a demonstratively inadequate yet provocative action which left the rioters emboldened—and average people exposed and unprotected.
More fundamentally, the United States is the most polarized it has been since the Civil War. States controlled by Democratic governors, mayors, and legislatures demonstrate an open contempt for President Trump’s orders, and the president has so far shown little ability to either find common ground with them—even on dealing with such essential matters as the pandemic—or to subjugate them to his will. Democratic governors and mayors defiantly declare their disregard for federal orders, ranging from the pandemic to immigration, without ever suffering serious consequences for themselves and for their states. The president, who thinks of himself as a tough leader in the mode of Winston Churchill, often sounds rather like King Lear.
In addition to a defiant bureaucracy and paralyzing leaks, Trump also finds himself confronted with senior officials in his own administration who openly disassociate themselves from his positions. Even amid riots in the nation’s capital, both the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated that they did not see the need to use the regular military against rioters. While there was indeed probably no need for the president to go that far, there is no doubt that the intent of such statements was to distance themselves from the president and to create doubts that he would be able, if necessary, to use military force to deal with domestic disturbances—a measure that has been used on several occasions in the past without much controversy. This de facto condemnation by heads of the military against their own president would be totally unjustifiable if Trump himself was not constantly providing mitigating circumstances by issuing ridiculous statements, ranging from comments about being a “stable genius” to threatening to smash his opponents both at home and abroad in a way nobody could actually take seriously.
IF ALL of this is true, how can one make a case for the reelection of Donald Trump with a straight face? Rather easily, it turns out, at least if you consider two important factors. First, the Democrats’ actions against the Trump presidency since day one have rendered it difficult, if not impossible, for him to govern in any kind of normal manner. Second, what alternative to President Trump have the Democrats offered? Is it a moderate alternative within the existing political system, or is it a revolutionary choice with the possibility, as the president claims, of left-wing fascists coming to power in the United States—a kind of totalitarianism rejecting most of American tradition, threatening basic American freedoms, and accelerating a demographic change in America which would make an election of another party virtually impossible for many years to come?
As soon as Trump began to look like a serious candidate in March and April 2016, the Democrats began portraying him not just as a misguided opponent, but as a corrupt and vicious threat to American democracy. Particularly unfair and damaging to Trump, both during the campaign and throughout his presidency, were the totally unsubstantiated accusations that he was in the pocket of Russian president Vladimir Putin, and was elected with Putin’s help. As so often is the case, Trump was his own worst enemy, bragging about his successful business deals in Russia and his non-existent meetings with Putin. The basic underlying reason for the Democrats’ accusations, however, were Trump’s substantive foreign policy positions, and two in particular: First, he did not view Russia as an enemy and thought he could get along well with Putin. Second, he believed that existing alliances worked poorly, provided allies with one-sided benefits, and needed significant reform.
Regarding his non-adversarial view of Russia, it suffices to say that no post-Cold War president before Trump ever viewed Russia as an outright enemy. Russia, moreover, hardly acted as an enemy of the United States. Was it a ruthless competitor? Yes. A country with different political values? Certainly. Today, the Russian military budget is dwarfed by America’s, and while Russia had built a close cooperative relationship with China, it did not seek a real alliance directed against America, nor did it have much chance to build one—China is so far reluctant to enter long-term alliances, and it has a healthy appreciation of the importance of the United States, both for Chinese prosperity and accordingly for the very stability of its communist political system. Candidate Trump did not suggest any unilateral disarmament with Russia and did not advocate any major concessions to Putin—that is assuming that any flexibility in dealing with Russia, even if it is not at the expense of important American interests, should not be considered treasonous.
On NATO, Trump essentially argued that allies did not pay their fair share. This was a demonstrable fact, considering few NATO members have military budgets at the required two percent GDP level. The lack of an immediate military threat from Russia, moreover, only bolstered Trump’s argument. Russia does not have the military capability to take on a much superior and better-funded NATO, and Putin has shown no sign of contemplating such reckless aggression. One therefore need not favor appeasement to have serious doubts about NATO enlargement as candidate Trump indicated during his campaign. Trump has demonstrated little sympathy for the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, similar to the Europeans themselves, particularly France and Germany, who have no appetite for bringing two countries with territorial disputes with Russia into the alliance. Actually, the Obama administration also showed no readiness to make any meaningful move to accelerate Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership.
Trump’s substantive positions therefore hardly justified allegations of him acting in the interest of Moscow, nor had his history with Russia. Trump had fairly modest business interests in Russia—and ambitions to do more—but he demonstrably did not have real connections. He otherwise would not have gone through the office of Putin’s press secretary to try to get support for his real estate project. No evidence exists that the Russian government gave Trump any favors. It simply ignored his palpable desire to meet with President Putin. But the national security establishment—primarily allied with the Democrats—was so entrenched in its near-theological sense of American entitlement to hegemonic power after the Cold War that any vocal departure from this orthodoxy became treated as a cardinal sin. This was felt particularly strongly because Trump did not hide his contempt for the self-appointed guardians of the post-Cold War orthodoxy. A lot of people, not just in the Obama administration but in the national security establishment as a whole, felt that their jobs, career prospects, and even influence were at stake. Nothing triggers a fiercer reaction than a combination of righteous indignation and pragmatic calculation of one’s own career interests.
Within this environment, few in the mainstream media asked the obvious question: why would the Russians, with their unsentimental philosophy of giving preference to relations with existing governments, be prepared to take chances on supporting candidate Trump, whom by all indications they did not expect to win? A partial explanation could be Putin’s distaste for Hillary Clinton, who supported anti-government protests in Russia, and his dislike for the Obama administration, which tended, in Putin’s view, to patronize and lecture—going so far as Vice President Biden, during a 2011 visit to Moscow, advising Putin not to run again.
Unlike in the case of Trump, the Russians had a long history with the Clintons, going as far back as 1968. Shortly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when many were staying away from any association with Moscow, Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton visited it for a Soviet-sponsored anti-war forum. Oligarchs close to Putin made major donations to the Clinton Foundation and paid sizable speaking fees to Clinton as a former president. Early during the 2016 campaign, according to informed sources in Moscow and Washington, former Democratic administration officials with good Russia connections told Moscow that it had little to fear from Hillary Clinton and should not pre-judge her conduct as president on the basis of her past behavior. They argued to Putin’s advisors that she was pragmatic and cynical, carried no special animosity toward Russia, and that Moscow would ultimately have an easier time with her than with the unpredictable and uninformed Donald Trump, who would likely be influenced by hardline Republicans vying for top positions in his administration.
There is indeed an abundance of evidence that both the Russian government and firms close to it became involved in the U.S. electoral process. As the Mueller Report and a growing consensus in the U.S. intelligence community made clear, however, the objective was not so much to help a particular candidate but rather to promote political polarization in the United States, and to do so in a less-than-secret fashion so that, as Moscow hoped, the U.S. government and the U.S. political elite more broadly would recognize that interference in Russian politics against the existing regime would come at a high cost. It was a combination of retaliation and deterrence, not difficult to predict knowing how much the United States had done in the name of democracy promotion, which—in the eyes of Russian rulers, particularly after the Maidan experience in Ukraine—was just another name for regime change.
THE DEMOCRATS and their supporters were determined to exploit the possibility of a Russia connection to their maximum advantage, regardless of the facts. I know this from personal experience: I endured a campaign launched by Democrats in the media, in Congress, in law enforcement, and in the former Obama administration to deny legitimacy to a newly elected president and to anyone even peripherally connected to him. In the process, collateral damage became perfectly acceptable.
A campaign against me started with a Democratic National Committee memo prepared shortly after Donald Trump spoke at an event at the Mayflower Hotel sponsored by The National Interest, which is published by the Center for the National Interest. The memo contains no evidence of any wrongdoing or inappropriate Russian connections on my part—or, for that matter, evidence of links to Donald Trump. The memo simply and somewhat plaintively concludes, “we don’t have a ton on Simes.” All they had instead was an article from the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon—the publication that sponsored the Christopher Steele investigation of Donald Trump—and had a history of alleging other Washington think-tanks engaged in an untoward dialogue with Russia. However, according to the memo an opportunity to use the CFTNI to focus on Trump was well-nigh irresistible. It is clear that the Center would have not come under scrutiny if it had not hosted Trump’s foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel. The investigation was not just limited to me, but also included several other board members and senior staff with impeccable national security credentials, some of whom later joined the Trump administration. A look at similar Washington organizations with Russia programs—the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, and the Wilson Center—reveals that they were attacked in one way or another by critics of engagement with Russia. In each case Russian nationals, in contrast to CFTNI, were employed. Among them were people with acknowledged intelligence backgrounds. None of these organizations, however, even remotely experienced the extraordinary level of examination directed at CFTNI. Not coincidentally, they were headed by former Deputy Secretaries of State from Democratic administrations (Carnegie and Brookings) or a former prominent Democratic member of Congress (Wilson Center).
Both the Center for the National Interest and I were subjected to a protracted and costly process of allegations and investigations. This resulted in the Mueller Report devoting no less than ten pages to us, only to reach the conclusion that we had not only not done anything illegal, but had failed to do anything that could even be considered remotely questionable.
One would hope that the Democrats and leading journalists would have some sense of regret over the public campaign that ensued against the Center. Not a chance. The only person to apologize to me was Mueller’s deputy, Aaron Zelinsky, who said that he was sorry to have subjected the Center and me personally to this kind of hardship. To be clear, Zelinsky did not express regret about his or Mueller’s conduct—they were simply doing their job. And in the case of the Center for the National Interest, they did it in a tough-minded but professional manner. I have only grudging respect for them.
There was no such closure for President Trump, for the people in his administration, or for his personal circle. Quite the contrary. They were subjected to a daily barrage of the most preposterous accusations, focusing not just on the president’s policies or his personal character, but also on his family. I myself have continually wondered throughout this process how Trump could perform as president while being subjected to the moral equivalent of daily waterboarding. It required unusual courage, perseverance, and an ability to compartmentalize for him to be able to perform his duties. There is no question that, far too often under these circumstances, Trump has been unable to separate his personal political fortunes from the larger national interest, had difficulty working constructively with his torturers in Congress, been antagonistic toward the liberal media, and been mistrustful of too many people in his own administration, including senior White House officials. But it’s also the case that Trump’s opponents may well have been objectively helping Russia and actually manipulated by it. Their actions bring to mind an acute observation of Nicholas II’s personal security chief, General Alexander Spiridovich, who in emigration established himself as a serious historian of revolution:
Politicians were talking about their commitment to struggle against the Germans. But in fact, they were fighting against their own government, against the monarchy. That very same monarchy, which the Germans were hoping to prevail against, and not only the Germans. Those considering themselves patriots were in fact advancing the very same revolution that was the dream of the German generals, who understood that it was their best hope to succeed against Russia and to destroy it all together. Everyone was accusing the government of being Germanophile, but they were handling themselves as effective German agents and provocateurs. The Germans only had to provide fuel to the fire.
We do not know and cannot know how President Trump would perform under minimally normal circumstances. At a minimum, however, what was done to him both by his opponents and his outright enemies provides mitigating circumstances in how we should judge his record.
SO WHAT is at stake in the 2020 presidential election? If Trump is reelected, his impressive skills in economic management are likely to help restore the economy once a combination of new vaccines and new medicine allow for the removal of strangulating controls. Economic recovery is essential for the millions of Americans without jobs, for the overall prosperity of the country, and, as a matter of fact, for America’s ability to maintain global leadership.
Less certain is what can be expected from Trump in terms of foreign policy. He demonstrated initial good instincts and fresh thinking in understanding the nature of global geopolitical evolution and the fundamental flaws of the post-Cold War consensus—which took for granted a unipolar world with the United States acting both as the world’s judge, jury and executioner as well as the pope of the new global religion: democracy promotion. Trump has still not developed even a minimally coherent concept of world politics and economics, nor has he demonstrated any ability to think strategically. By now, though, he undoubtedly has more experience, more familiarity with key countries and their leaders, and a commendable combination both of ruthlessness on behalf of American interests as he sees them and of reluctance to take huge risks in pursuit of less-than-essential objectives. If he has smoother sailing during his second term—something that, as Richard Nixon’s experience demonstrates, cannot be taken for granted—he may have a fairly successful presidency, at least one without catastrophic domestic and foreign policy disasters.
The Democrats, on the other hand, bear at least as much responsibility for the political polarization and policy failures of the last four years as Donald Trump, and give the same impression as that of the Bourbons in 1815: they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They have not only allied themselves with, but become infiltrated by angry, left-wing radicals who demand nothing less than a fundamental transformation of America. Ironically, they are reminiscent of the early colonists who loved land and riches but also dreamed about building a new country of their own. They talk about their love for country, but it is not clear what exactly they love about American history, tradition, and the way it exists today—all of which they consider deplorable. The Democrats accuse Trump of being the president of division, yet Trump cannot compete with them when it comes to sorting Americans into different class and racial categories, creating preferences for some at the expense of others.
Reasonable people may disagree about the existence of systemic racism in the United States. Racism certainly still exists and should be condemned and addressed wherever found. Similarly, there is no question that there exists pervasive police brutality—most visible in the case of African-Americans but prevalent across the entire racial spectrum—because the very culture and training of police far too often put a premium on protecting the officers, even if it means not taking appropriate precautions to avoid hurting the innocent. This culture must be profoundly reformed, and those who cannot change should be purged from the ranks of the police.
At the same time, the left-wing increasingly dominant in the Democratic Party, however, want something much more basic. They do not simply want to reform the police; they want to defund and intimidate the police, all but ensuring that law enforcement officers are unable to take tough action against criminal acts, especially when the perpetrators emerge from minority groups.
No less dangerous is the popular notion that the only way to provide equal opportunities to African-Americans is to deliver special treatment such as affirmative action. Such a system entitles one to discriminate against the descendants of Holocaust survivors and Stalin’s purges, of those who escaped communist brutality in East Asia, and millions of others who have absolutely no connection to slavery and have never benefitted from any form of racial discrimination. These are obviously complex matters, where people of goodwill can appropriately disagree in debating the facts and right responses. What is particularly dangerous, though, is a demonstrable totalitarian temptation among many in the left wing of the Democratic Party to create taboos about certain topics and to assume that in every dispute between protected and unprotected groups, the protected groups are presumed to be right by definition, whether they allege sexual harassment or accuse a white person of having a malicious intent in a dispute with an African-American. It is overwhelmingly conservative speakers who have difficulty sharing their views on university campuses and overwhelmingly people who depart from left-wing political correctness who are increasingly subjected, not just to public condemnation, but to economic sanctions and the total destruction of their good name and their career.
THE RECENT destruction of monuments—including Confederate statues—is the manifestation of a more general trend. America for many years was based on a realization that people have different views, backgrounds, and circumstances and are bound to disagree. Heroes to some look like villains to others, and clearly, there is a difference between keeping a statue of a historical figure and awarding them a Nobel Peace Prize. But there has always existed the idea that, in the name of national cohesion and mutual self-respect, we should accept—not necessarily celebrate or admire, but simply accept—historic symbols, important to a significant portion of the American population. That tradition of compromise and acceptance on which the United States was founded, and which, along with an entrepreneurial spirit and the rule of law, makes America great, is now under attack from left-wing groups closely associated with the Democratic Party.
In the field of foreign policy, the dominant tendency among Democrats today is a combination of overreach; blind commitment to allies, even if they are not part of an official alliance; selectively-applied democracy promotion, which gives the impression that the United States is in the business of worldwide regime change; and remarkable timidity when push actually comes to shove. As seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, when the United States has to sacrifice real blood and treasure for this kind of indiscriminate global crusading, liberals are the first to lose their will to fight. There is nothing more fragile than an ambitious yet timid global empire, which has become an article of faith in the Democratic national security establishment. As the Ancient Roman historian Tacitus once observed: “Great empires are not maintained by timidity.”
Recall that in 1979, the Soviet Union appeared at the apogee of its power: it projected power worldwide, looked like a monolith at home, and provoked fear in the United States as potential hegemonic power. A little more than ten years later, the enterprise collapsed because of the great division among its peoples, conflict among its elites, and a pursuit of foreign policy objectives far beyond its means. If one observes American choices through this prism, Donald Trump isn’t the better choice to secure America’s future. He is the only choice.
Dimitri K. Simes, publisher of TheNational Interest, is president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest.Image: Reuters